Let's address the short list of movements that seem to be staples in many training programs, including Olympic-style lifts, squats and plyometrics. Each of these satisfies most or all of the criteria mentioned in Part 1 of this series. Collectively, they work well together because they can potentiate one another’s effects. Still, some people react negatively when asked to do them — as if the fact that they’re commonly used in sports like football makes them inappropriate for other activities. When you think about it, however, football shares the same basic demands as other ground-based activities; and the main purpose of these movements is to improve athleticism and prevent injury, not to bodybuild. So when you encounter resistance, it helps to remind people that such generic exercises are the right medicine for a wide range of athletes as long as appropriate doses, or loads, are prescribed.
Having clarified what specificity actually is, as well as what it isn’t, let’s put things in context. Specificity is one of at least seven training principles that have stood the test of time (Dick 2007; Harre 1982; Matveyev 1977; Stone, Stone & Sands 2007; Zatsiorsky & Kraemer 2006). This isn’t just a checklist of no-brainers. Fundamentally sound training involves making some important decisions and resolving some challenging trade-offs:
- Accommodation: The biological response to constant stimuli decreases with repeated application. Novel/beneficial stressors yield adaptation; whereas monotonous/detrimental stressors yield stagnation or decay.
- Continuity: The body’s homeostatic mechanisms up-regulate corresponding systems in response to training; and down-regulate them in response to detraining.
- Individuality: The same stimuli induce unique responses in each athlete due to genetic differences, developmental/training status and environmental factors.
- Progression: Long-term preparation should be planned such that tasks become progressively more challenging with respect to critical/sensitive developmental periods. Optimal learning and training effects are achieved by advancing from general to special movements and extensive to intensive workloads.
- Specificity³: Adaptation becomes increasingly specific to imposed demands as the athlete’s level of preparation improves. Training tasks should correspond to the mechanical, energetic and coordinative demands of the sport.
- Synergy: Focus should be directed toward integrated movement qualities and systemic training effects. The challenge is to plan and implement various stimuli in order to exploit cumulative and interactive responses, and minimize fatigue/compatibility problems.
- Variability²: Adaptive responses to strenuous loading are manifested during subsequent unloading periods. Summated/sequenced training effects are realized through planned distribution or variation in training means (content) and methods (workload) on a cyclic or “periodic” basis.
The problem with these principles is that they often fly under people’s radar because they seem mundane. Consequently, some of them are misunderstood while others aren’t commonly recognized, at least on this side of the pond. In many resources published in the West, specificity and progressive overload are two that seem to be universally accepted, but after that it’s a crapshoot (by contrast, in the international community — especially the former Eastern Bloc — a full list of principles dominates entire chapters in most of the classic books on sports training). The result is predictable: Principles tend to get lost in the noise and many people are unclear on the concepts. It’s no wonder unsound or nonsensical training practices are still so common in some settings.
The first time you skim through the list of principles, it will probably occur to you that each one is just common sense. But go through them one more time and consider them collectively. Notice how some seem to conflict with each other even though they make sense individually. Two obvious examples are specificity and variation. The trade-off between these principles is one of the most important paradoxes of all because it drives the central decisions we have to make.
According to the SAID concept, training needs to be specific to a performance target or we’re just getting exercise. At the same time, we know that the system will accommodate (read: stagnate) if the training stimulus is too narrow. In effect, then, we need a bandwidth of variation around the target — and the earlier an athlete is in their development, the broader this bandwidth needs to be.
To borrow a pitching analogy: first, we need to be sure that we’ve identified the strike zone, and for that matter that we’re in the right ballpark. Next, we need to know the situation. In baseball, this starts with knowing the count; in training, it means knowing an athlete’s developmental status. Then we can select our pitches. Sometimes we’ll want to aim it right down the pipe; other times we’ll want to deliberately miss the strike zone a bit, to keep the other player on its toes.
Task analysis (specificity) is the unexciting, tedious part of planning. Selecting tactics (variation) is where the fun stuff is, and where we tend to focus our attention much of the time. But we can get into big trouble if we don’t first zero in on the correct target or recognize the situation — two distinct problems when overloaded with information. This is precisely when principles are most valuable, but also easiest to overlook. They make a great baloney detector and noise filter, enabling us to find superior information — i.e. the signal — and hopefully use it in a superior manner. Above all, remember that principles are natural laws that won’t cease and desist no matter how distracted or preoccupied we may be.
Good Old Needs Analysis: New & Improved!
Certain aspects of the triangulation concept should sound familiar. It’s really just a revised approach to needs analysis, the first step in exercise prescription (Kraemer 1983). Originally, this step involved a two-pronged (mechanical and energetic) analysis of a sport’s demands. We’re simply adding a third prong (coordination) and updating the criteria used in each.
There are corollaries to needs analysis in other professions. Occupational and Physical Therapists design “return to work” programs that have high fidelity to patients’ job demands. Therapists commonly use work domain analysis (Brannick, Levine & Morgeson 2007) as well as task analysis (Watson & Wilson 2003) procedures to model the performance demands and constraints of certain activities. The central idea is to evaluate the interaction between people, environments and activities; and then plan and implement intervention programs that improve how these factors fit together.
Athletic activities tend to be at the high end of the continuum in terms of both performance and stress. Our ultimate goal should still be to improve athletes’ fitness to their target activity and environment. Our intervention programs should be designed, first and foremost, as developmentally-appropriate curricula where the emphasis progresses from general to special preparation over the long term.
Is Your Program Sport-Generic?
When you consider the common skill set or “language of movement” that many sports share, their specialized demands start to look a bit subtler in the scheme of things. In order to maximize athletes’ performance and minimize injury risks, we do need to identify truly sport specific issues. But it’s important to start with sport generic demands.
The language of movement analogy isn’t just a buzzword. Both speech and movement are acquired skills that involve the brain’s motor centers. In each case, achieving fluency requires sequenced development that begins with general prerequisites and then progresses toward more specialized or advanced content. The keys are to apply educationally-based training strategies and to take the term “student-athlete” literally. It’s a badge of honor if you can accurately describe your macro-, meso- and microcycles in terms of curriculum, syllabus and lesson plans, respectively.
The challenge in practice is to convey this to someone who has fallen into the simulation trap (but isn’t aware they’re in it) or doesn’t see the connection between training and education (but wants their kid doing an elite athlete’s program). It can also be a tough sell with coaches or parents who react negatively when their athletes do an exercise that’s commonly used in other sports. Hopefully these ideas, and some of the resources cited below, will help improve their signal-to-noise ratio.
In closing, some of our basic assumptions — the things like specificity that we “know for sure” — may be where we’re most likely to miss something or let a half-truth slip through our defenses. Once an idea finds its way into our belief systems, we tend to rationalize it and bring in the reinforcements. It’s normal to acquire biases, defend beliefs, disregard or distort new information that doesn’t conform, and generally develop a bad case of confidence. The more expertise we acquire in one area, the more it tends to bolster our sense of competence in others. That’s often a good thing, but sometimes it can backfire.
It takes real willpower and humility to think critically, to challenge your own beliefs, and to strive for objectivity and rationality — especially when you’re being peppered with information from every angle. The payoff is worth it. So step back and reconsider an elementary idea like specificity. Triangulate, if only to make sure you didn’t miss something on the first pass. Your game plan will really hit its mark when all sides of the target are clearly visible.
- Brannick M.T., Levine E.L. & Morgeson F.P. Job & Work Analysis (2nd Edition). Los Angeles CA: Sage, 2007.
- Dick F.W. Sports Training Principles (5th Edition). London: A&C Black, 2007.
- Drabik J. Children & Sports Training. Island Pond VT: Stadion Publishing, 1996.
- Fleck S.J. & Kraemer W.J. Designing Resistance Training Programs (3rd Edition). Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2003.
- Harre D. (Editor) Principles of Sports Training. Berlin: Sportverlag, 1982.
- Kraemer W.J. Exercise prescription in resistance training: a needs analysis. NSCA Journal 5(1): 64-65, 1983.
- Magill R.A. Motor Learning & Control (8th Edition). New York NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
- Matveyev L. Fundamentals of Sports Training. Moscow: Fizkultura i Sport, 1977 [Moscow: Progress; translated by A.P. Zdornykh, 1981].
- National Association for Sport & Physical Education. Moving Into the Future (2nd Edition). New York NY: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
- Plisk S.S. Speed, agility, and speed-endurance development. In: T.R. Baechle & R.W. Earle (Editors), Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning (3rd Edition). Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2008; pp. 457-485.
- Plisk S.S. Training principles and program design. Strategies 18(4): 16-21, 2005.
- Plisk S.S., Gambetta V. Tactical metabolic training. Strength & Conditioning 19(2): 44-53, 1997.
- Schmidt R.A. & Lee T.D. Motor Control & Learning (4th Edition). Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2005.
- Schmidt R.A. & Wrisberg C.A. Motor Learning & Performance (4th Edition). Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.
- Stone M.H., Stone M.E. & Sands W.A. Principles & Practice of Resistance Training. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.
- Verkhoshansky Y.V. Fundamentals of Special Strength-Training in Sport. Moscow: Fizkultura i Spovt, 1977 [Livonia MI: Sportivny, 1986; translated by A. Charniga Jr].
- Verkhoshansky Y.V. Special Strength Training. Muskegon MI: Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2006.
- Watson D.E. & Wilson S.A. Task Analysis (2nd Edition). Bethesda MD: American Occupational Therapy Association, 2003.
- Zatsiorsky V.M. & Kraemer W.J. Science & Practice of Strength Training (2nd Edition). Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2006.